Yansong Wang

China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms — South China Morning Post

I’m delighted to share the OpEd essay written by my China First Capital colleague Dr. Yansong Wang and published in today’s South China Morning Post. Her piece is titled “China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms”. It offers up her analysis on the disappointing economic conditions and vast untapped potential in her home region, China’s Northeast, formerly known as Manchuria, and in Chinese as 中国东北. I agree with her policy prescriptions as well as prudent optimism the region can be transformed just as America’s Rust Belt.

Her final paragraph notes a paradox familiar to me as well. In Shenzhen, we’re lucky enough to know two of China’s most consistently successful listed company chairmen, Mr. Gao Yunfeng , the founding entrepreneur of Han’s Laser Group  (大族激光集团), the world’s largest laser machine tool company, and Mr. Xing Jie, of a highly innovative and successful publicly-traded SOE, Tagen Group (天健集团).

Both, like Yansong, come from Jilin Province and all three have found success far from where they were raised, in Shenzhen. Yansong puts across her final point with conviction: “We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.”

SCMP logo

Dongbei Yansong Wang

Over the course of my 35 years, China’s northeast has gone from being the country’s economic powerhouse to its most systematically troubled large region. Much of the region’s enormous state-owned industrial complex is in difficulty, while gross domestic product growth continues to lag. The deepest and most poignant signs of the economic malaise are a falling population and the fact that the northeast’s birth rate is now one-third below the national average.

The concern about how to revive the economy animates not only the highest levels of the central government, but also many people who recall the key role the region has played leading China’s modernisation. The concern is warranted. It now needs to be matched by some fresh thinking and new policy initiatives. I’d like to see the northeast become a laboratory for bold ideas about how to restructure state-owned enterprises in China.

I care deeply about what happens in the northeast. Though I now live and work in Shenzhen, I was born and raised in Jilin (吉林) province. My parents and 95-year-old grandmother still live there. I owe a lot of my life’s achievements up to now – undergraduate study at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei (合肥), followed by a PhD in physics from Princeton, to my current role in an international investment bank – to the mind-expanding public education I received growing up in the northeast.

The climate and its mainly landlocked geography are a challenge. But there is no reason the northeast should be a victim of its geography. The part of the US with the most similar conditions, the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, has successfully moved away from a focus on heavy industry to being a world leader in all kinds of advanced manufacturing and food processing. Great companies, including 3M, Cargill and Amway, all hail from this part of the US.

Could my home region produce its own world-conquering companies? I believe so.

Step one is to reorient investment capital away from the tired and often loss-making state-owned enterprises towards newer, nimbler private-sector firms. At present, too much investment goes to one of the most unproductive uses of all: new loans to companies that can’t repay their existing ones. This kind of rollover lending generally does not produce one new job or one new increment of GDP.

The central government is stepping up, announcing in August plans for 127 major projects, at a cost of 1.6 trillion yuan (HK$1.8 trillion). The problem isn’t so much that the northeast has too much heavy industry; it’s more that it has too much of the wrong kind. Basic steel is in vast oversupply. But the northeast could shine in developing speciality steel for advanced applications in China. One example that strikes me every time I ride on China’s high-speed rail network: too much of the special steel used on tracks is imported from Japan and Europe. We can make that.

How do we go from being a tired rust belt to a rejuvenated region pulsing with opportunity? The central and provincial governments should encourage more experimentation to push forward the scope and pace of state-owned enterprise reform. A starting point: banks could shoulder more of the cost of restructuring state firms. That will allow for new forms of mixed ownership, asset sales, and bigger and more effective debt-for-equity swaps.

I would also like to see the northeast become the first place where service industries, now mainly restricted to state firms – including banking and insurance – are opened up to private competitors.

There is no shortage in the northeast of the most important facilitator of economic development: a well-educated population. For now, sadly, too many of the entrepreneurially inclined leave the region. Indeed, two of the most visionary listed company chairmen I know are, like me, Jilin natives now living in Shenzhen, Gao Yunfeng of Han’s Laser and Xin Jie of Tagen Group. We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.

Dr Yansong Wang is chief operating officer at China First Capital

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2050099/chinas-depressed-northeast-down-not-out-if-officials-can-fix

Why Taiwan Is Far Ahead of Mainland China in High-Tech — Financial Times commentary

FT logo

Largan

Every country is touchy about some topics, especially when raised by foreigner. Living in China for almost seven years now, and having been a student of the place for the last forty, I thought I knew the hot buttons not to press. Apparently not.

The topic at hand: high-tech innovation in the PRC and why it seems to lag so far behind that of neighboring Taiwan. A recent issue of one of China’s leading business publications, Caijing Magazine, published a Chinese-language article I wrote together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang, about Taiwan’s high-flying optical lens company Largan Precision.

Soon after the magazine was published, it began circulating rather widely. Howls of national outrage began to reach me almost immediately. Mainly we were accused of not understanding the topic and having ignored China’s many tech companies that are at least the equal, if not superior, to Largan.

I didn’t think the article would be all that contentious, at least not the facts. Largan last year had revenues in excess of $1 billion and net profit margins above 40%, more than double those of its main customer, Apple, no slouch at making money. China has many companies which supply components to Apple, either directly or as a subcontractor. None of these PRC companies can approach the scale and profitability of Largan. In fact, there are few whose net margins are higher than 10%, or one-quarter Largan’s. Case in point: Huawei, widely praised within China as the country’s most successful technology company, has net margins of 9.5%.

Taiwan inaugurated its new president last month, Tsai Ing-wen, who represents the pro-Taiwan independence party. Few in the PRC seem to be in a mood to hear anything good about Taiwan. In one Wechat forum for senior executives, the language turned sharp. “China has many such companies, you as a foreigner just don’t know about them.” Or, “Largan is only successful because like Taiwan itself, it is protected by the American government” and “Apple buys from Largan because it wants to hold back China’s development”.

Not a single comment I’ve seen focused on perhaps more obvious reasons China’s tech ambitions are proving so hard to realize: a weak system of patent protection, widespread online censoring and restrictions on free flow of information, a venture capital industry which, though now large, has an aversion to backing new directions in R&D.  In Taiwan, none of this is true.

Largan is doing so well because the optical-quality plastic lenses it makes for mobile phone cameras are unrivalled in their price and performance. Any higher-end mobile phone, be it an iPhone or an Android phone selling for above $400, relies on Largan lenses.

Many companies in the PRC have tried to get into this business. So far none have succeeded. Largan, of course, wants to keep it that way. It has factories in China, but key parts of Largan’s valuable, confidential manufacturing processes take place in Taiwan. High precision, high megapixel plastic camera lenses are basically impossible to reverse-engineer. You can’t simply buy a machine, feed in some plastic pellets and out comes a perfect, spherical, lightweight 16-megapixel lens. Largan has been in the plastic lens business for almost twenty years. Today’s success is the product of many long years of fruitless experimentation and struggle. Largan had to wait a long time for the market demand to arrive. Great companies, ones with high margins and unique products, generally emerge in this way.

We wrote the article in part because Largan is not widely-known in China. It should be. The PRC is, as most people know, engaged in a massive, well-publicized multi-pronged effort to stimulate high-tech innovation and upgrade the country’s manufacturing base. A huge rhetorical push from China’s central government leadership is backed up with tens of billions of dollars in annual state subsidies. Largan is a good example close to home of what China stands to gain if it is able to succeed in this effort. It’s not only about fat profits and high-paying jobs. Largan is also helping to create a lager network of suppliers, customers and business opportunities outside mobile phones. High precision low-cost and lightweight lenses are also finding their way into more and more IOT devices. There are also, of course, potential military applications.

So why is it, the article asks but doesn’t answer, the PRC does not have companies like Largan? Is it perhaps too early? From the comments I’ve seen, that is one main explanation. Give China another few years, some argued, and it will certainly have dozens of companies every bit as dominant globally and profitable as Largan. After all, both are populated by Chinese, but the PRC has 1.35 billion of them compared to 23 million on Taiwan.

A related strand, linked even more directly to notions of national destiny and pride: China has 5,000 years of glorious history during which it created such technology breakthroughs as paper, gunpowder, porcelain and the pump. New products now being developed in China that will achieve breakthroughs of similar world-altering amplitude.

Absent from all the comments is any mention of fundamental factors that almost certainly inhibit innovation in China. Start with the most basic of all: intellectual property protection, and the serious lack thereof in China. While things have improved a bit of late, it is still far too easy to copycat ideas and products and get away with it. There are specialist patent courts now to enforce China’s domestic patent regime. But, the whole system is still weakly administered. Chinese courts are not fully independent of political influence. And anyway, even if one does win a patent case and get a judgment against a Chinese infringer, it’s usually all but impossible to collect on any monetary compensation or prevent the loser from starting up again under another name in a different province.

Another troubling component of China’s patent system: it awards so-called “use patents” along with “invention patents”. This allows for a high degree of mischief. A company can seek patent protection for putting someone else’s technology to a different use, or making it in a different way.

It’s axiomatic that countries without a reliable way to protect valuable inventions and proprietary technology will always end up with less of both. Compounding the problem in China, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements are usually unenforceable. Employees and subcontractors pilfer confidential information and start up in business with impunity.

Why else is China, at least for now, starved of domestic companies with globally-important technology? Information of all kinds does not flow freely, thanks to state control over the internet. A lot of the coolest new ideas in business these days are first showcased on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. All of these, of course, are blocked by the Great Firewall of China, along with all kinds of traditional business media. Closed societies have never been good at developing cutting edge technologies.

There’s certainly a lot of brilliant software and data-packaging engineering involved in maintaining the Great Firewall. Problem is, there’s no real paying market for online state surveillance tools outside China. All this indigenous R&D and manpower, if viewed purely on commercial terms, is wasted.

The venture capital industry in China, though statistically the second-largest in the world, has shunned investments in early-stage and experimental R&D. Instead, VCs pour money into so-called “C2C” businesses. These “Copied To China” companies look for an established or emerging business model elsewhere, usually in the US, then create a local Chinese version, safe in the knowledge the foreign innovator will probably never be able to shut-down this “China only” version. It’s how China’s three most successful tech companies – Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu – got their start. They’ve moved on since then, but “C2C” remains the most common strategy for getting into business and getting funded as a tech company in China.

Another factor unbroached in any of the comments and criticisms I read about the Largan article: universities in China, especially the best ones, are extremely difficult to get into. But, their professors do little important breakthrough research. Professorial rank is determined by seniority and connections, less so by academic caliber. Also, Chinese universities don’t offer, as American ones do, an attractive fee-sharing system for professors who do come up with something new that could be licensed.

Tech companies outside China finance innovation and growth by going public. Largan did so in Taiwan, very early on in 2002, when the company was a fraction of its current size. Tech IPOs of this kind are all but impossible in China. IPOs are tightly managed by government regulators. Companies without three years of past profits will never even be admitted to the now years-long queue of companies waiting to go public.

Taiwan is, at its closest point, only a little more than a mile from the Chinese mainland. But, the two are planets apart in nurturing and rewarding high-margin innovation. Taiwan is strong in the fundamental areas where the PRC is weak. While Largan may now be the best performing Taiwanese high-tech company, there are many others that similarly can run circles around PRC competitors. For all the recent non-stop talk in the PRC about building an innovation-led economy, one hears infrequently about Taiwan’s technological successes, and even less about ways the PRC might learn from Taiwan.

That said, I did get a lot of queries about how PRC nationals could buy Largan shares. Since the article appeared, Largan’s shares shot up 10%, while the overall Taiwan market barely budged.

Our Largan article clearly touched a raw nerve, at least for some. If it is to succeed in transforming itself into a technology powerhouse, one innovation required in China may be a willingness to look more closely and assess more honestly why high-tech does so much better in Taiwan.

(An English-language version of the Largan article can be read by clicking here. )

(财经杂志 Caijing Magazine’s Chinese-language article can be read by clicking here.)

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2016/06/07/why-taiwan-is-far-ahead-of-mainland-china-in-high-tech/

China to fine-tune back-door listing policies for US-listed companies — South China Morning Post

 

SCMP logo

China reverse mergers

Mainland China’s securities regulator will fine-tune policies related to back-door listing (reverse merger)attempts by US-listed Chinese companies, industry insiders say, but it is unlikely to ban them or impose other rigid restrictions.

“It is clear that the regulator does not like the recent speculation on the A-share markets triggered by the relisting trend and will do something to curb such conduct, but it seems impossible they would shut good-quality companies out of the domestic market,” Wang Yansong, a senior investment banker based in Shenzhen, said.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) was considering capping valuation multiples for companies seeking relisting on the A-share market after delisting from the US market, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Another option being discussed was introducing a quota to limit the number of reverse mergers each year from companies formerly listed on a foreign bourse.

To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals
Wang Yansong.

However, Wang said the CSRC was more likely to strengthen verification of back-door listing deals on a case-by-case basis.

“To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals, and won’t allow poor-quality companies to seek premiums through this process,” she said.

US-listed mainland companies have been flocking to relist on the A-share market since early last year, when the domestic market started a bull run, in order to shed depressed valuations in American markets.

The valuations of relisted companies have boomed, and that has triggered a surge in speculation on possible shell companies – poorly performing firms listed on the Shanghai or Shenzhen bourses. In a process called a reverse takeover or back-door listing, a shell can buy a bigger, privately held company through a share exchange that gives the private company’s shareholders control of the merged entity.

The biggest such deal was done by digital advertising company Focus Media. Its valuation jumped more than eightfold to US$7.2 billion after it delisted from America’s Nasdaq in 2013 and relisted in Shenzhen in December last year, with private equity funds involved in the deal reaping lucrative returns.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm, said the trend of delisting and relisting was “one of the biggest wealth transfers ever from China to the US”.

“The money spent by Chinese investors to privatise Chinese companies in New York ended up lining the pockets of rich institutional investors and arbitrageurs in the US,” he said.

However, a tightening or freeze on approval of such deals would threaten not only US-listed Chinese companies in the process of buyouts and shell companies, but also the buyout capital sunk into delistings and relistings.

“The more than US$80 billion of capital spent in the ‘delist-relist’ deals is perhaps the biggest unhedged bet made in recent private equity history … if, as seems true, the route to exit via back-door listing may be bolted shut, this investment strategy could turn into one of the bigger losers of recent times,” he said.

On Friday, CSRC spokesman Zhang Xiaojun sidestepped a question about a rumoured ban on reverse takeover deals by US-listed Chinese companies in the A-share market, saying it had noticed the great price difference in the domestic and the US markets, and the speculation on shell companies, and was studying their influences.

http://www.scmp.com/business/markets/article/1943386/china-fine-tune-back-door-listing-policies-us-listed-companies

For article on a related topic published in “The Deal”, please click here